Today’s Scholarly Kitchen blog post is an attempt by David Crotty — the blog’s editor — to quantify the increasing consolidation of the academic publishing industry. Crotty concludes:

Overall, the market has significantly consolidated since 2000 — when the top 5 publishers held 39% of the market of articles to 2022 where they control 61% of it. Looking at larger sets of publishers makes the consolidation even more extreme, as the top 10 largest publishers went from 47% of the market in 2000 to 75% in 2023, and the top 20 largest publishers from 54% to controlling 83% of the corpus.

It’s helpful to have more data on the increasing power that a small number of academic publishers hold. Crotty charts this consolidation from the year 2000 onwards, from the concentration brought about by the effects of the Big Deal to the present day where 5 publishers now control 61% of the article output, brought about by the dominant business models for open access based on greater volume and technological scale. The author’s finger is pointed at Coalition S for instigating a ‘rapid state of change’ that allows author-pays open access to flourish.

I’m no fan of open access policies, Plan S especially, and I’m sure that policy interventions play a part in the consolidation at play. There are of course many ways of achieving open access without recourse to author fees, transformative agreements, or technologies that remove human expertise in place of automation and scale. But while there is nothing natural or necessary about the relationship between open access and consolidation, there is a much stronger connection between commercialisation and consolidation. The recent history of academic publishing has been of marketisation and, hence, consolidation.

I always bristle when I read that open access is to blame for the problems with the publishing market, not simply because open access does not have to be a market-based activity (and is better when it isn’t) but more because the explanation is so shallow. It is a position that usually takes as its starting point that the natural and proper way for academic publishing to be organised is as a commercial activity and any intervention that works against this is to blame for the deleterious effects of commercialisation. Publishing is and always is a business (possibly a reflection of the constituents that the Scholarly Kitchen represents), despite the fact that it is exactly the commercial nature of publishing that is the problem.

Yet open access is good precisely because it allows us to reorient academic publishing away from commercial practice and to experiment with forms of publishing that are less reliant on competition, profiteering and the extraction of free and under-remunerated labour. Policymakers are starting to wake up to this fact, as in part illustrated by the turn towards no-fee and non-commercial forms of open access, and I am cautiously optimistic about this turn. The danger is that policymakers mandate no-fee open access in accordance with the requirements of commercial publishing and the need to devalue skilled labour in the pursuit of revenue.

So it’s easy to criticise open access policies for their harmful impact, but this has to be done from a position that understands how the same issues of profiteering and extraction were a consequence of the subscription market too. They are the logical extension of publishing as a market-based activity, not of wanting to make the literature freely available to all. Open access policies do not address the problem of marketisation largely because they are not designed to do so. Profit-seeking actors create business models to maximise their revenues as a result of such policies. The whole system rests on this logic of extraction and that’s what needs to be opposed.